Michael Ortiz Hill


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The Craft of Compassion
A Video Essay

Michael Ortiz Hill
(310) 455-0301

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     John Howard Griffin’s book, Black Like Me, exemplifies what Tibetans call  dakshen nyamje :"equalizing and exchanging self and other."  I call dakshen nyamje radical empathy.  Griffin, a white man, had his skin color changed with a pharmaceutical,  shaved his head and arms and traveled through the deep south as a black man during the height of the civil rights movement.  I write of Griffin as metaphor. There is a profound education of the heart when one slides from ones own point of view to the perspective of another.  

     In my early twenties, a passionate and earnest feminist, I became a housewife.  My first wife, Marsha, was a speech therapist with elementary school children and I was a high school dropout.   

When we had our daughter it was most sensible that I stay at home  with Nicole and learn the arts of bottle, diapers, potty training, the terrible twos and getting a meal on the table.   While Nicole napped I’d read feminist literature and was disciplined in my efforts to understand the mind of the "other half."  

Dakshen nyamje  rhymes with the Cherokee proverb that you can’t understand another until you’ve walked three moons in their moccasins.  

Radical empathy follows through on the question, "what if it were I or someone  close to me who is suffering so?"  

Amber is twenty-five and has leukemia. She loves the theater and at her bedside there is a photo of her in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For the moment she’s undone by a stem cell transplant, her gums bleeding, asleep on ativan. My daughter is Amber’s age and I whisper this to her father when I bring him a cup of coffee. A swift, silent understanding.  

   Nothing more need be said.  

   This is radical empathy.  

Mrs. Brown just had a mastectomy, as did my wife, and she is painfully self-conscious of her flat left side. Such was the rapport between us that I borrowed from my love of my wife’s beauty.

I laughed, "The running joke with my wife is that women with two breasts have come to look a little unnatural to me." Mrs. Brown confessed that she seemed to have more trouble with her mastectomy than her husband.  

"Borrowing from my wife’s beauty" was radical empathy.  

  Radical empathy: equalizing and exchanging self and other,  Ones own story is not privileged over another’s.    

Professor Glen Hougan of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design created an "empathy suit" that vividly allows the wearer the experience of radical empathy with the elderly as movement, sight, hearing and breathing becomes impaired. Watching this video I couldn’t help remembering walking the streets with my 90 year old friend, John Seeley, those years I was gifted with the tailor made empathy suit of multiple sclerosis. I recall being the ‘gimp,’ crazed with steroids and walking slowly to a counter to rent a video. There were half a dozen people behind me and the teller was most impatient, rude actually, as I slowly, slowly looked for my ID and more slowly counted my change. The spirit of  radical empathy was with me – for those debilitated as I was but also for the teller.  I recalled the many times as a hospital nurse with a person newly diagnosed with a stroke and suffering from expressive aphasia.  I was then the ‘teller’ – impatient, suffering not to ‘appear’ rude, having half a dozen other patients to attend to – all being easily understood.

Copyright © Michael Ortiz Hill.  All rights reserved.